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Parashat Bamidbar: The Desert is the Perfect Place to Become Holy

The weekly portion of Bamidbar starts the fourth book of the Pentateuch (the five books of the Torah), and deals with more of the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert, in the wilderness, following their exodus from Egypt.

How come such a big part of the Torah happens in the desert? And how come when we receive the Torah – which we will celebrate in a week from now on Shavuot – we receive it in the desert, which is, in a way, receiving it in no place, in no location, in a place that doesn’t have any contents of its own?

One way to understand this is as a theology of no place, a religion without a place or as a religion that is about the relationship between a people and God and without a relationship to a place.

Another option for answering these questions is to go back to our parasha and read how much of the text is dedicated to describing the construction of the Israelite camp was and how everyone and everything was placed in a very specific place. The verses make clear that the relationship among the different units that built up this camp is critical.

What we learn from this is that in order to create a holy place, we need to work, we need to make an effort. Through our actions and through our deeds we can make a place holy.

This also compares to what we need to do on Shabbat. Shabbat is about staying in one place. It is about creating relationships to your neighbors and to your immediate surroundings, to limiting yourself to the people next to you.

And this is the idea of the holy place in Judaism. It is not something that is intrinsic, but is something that we build through our relationshops to the people who are nearest to us.

And that is the way in which the wilderness teaches us to live and why a seemingly empty place was chosen as the setting for many of the most significant events in the Torah.

Shavua Tov from Schechter.

Avi Novis-Deutsch is the former Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. Ordained as a Masorti rabbi by the SRS in 2003, Rabbi  Novis-Deutsch also holds an MA in Jewish Studies from JTS. He served for nine years as a pulpit rabbi at two Masorti congregations in Israel, most recently, at Haminyan Hamishpachti Masorti Kfar Veradim. Rabbi Novis-Deutsch also worked for two years as a Jewish educator in Berkeley in the Bay Area, California.  He is married to Dr. Nurit Novis-Deutsch. They and their three children live on Kibbutz Hanaton.

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